LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY
Note: In addition to writing about community change and penning commentary, I am a story teller. I write fiction and spoken word. This piece is a mix of fact and fiction, often called “faction.”
One of my small luxuries in life is having someone come to my house weekly and clean it. I tell myself I need this service because I am so busy, but truth is it’s a luxury for me. I can afford it and to be honest I have the time to take care of my own mess; I just hate doing it.
Karen is the one who takes care of this for me. She is 24 and nearly always cheerful. She does an excellent job and in good time as well. She is a friend of a friend and when I heard she was interested in providing this service, I decided to give her a go.
When I asked her what she charged, she asked if $15 per hour would be okay. I had two reactions to her question. One had to do with her proposal representing a great deal. If I were a business I might have equated her wage request as a way of minimizing the cost of her labour on my bottom line.
But I am not a business. I am just a guy who dislikes doing his own housework. My second reaction was the stronger of the two. I told her I would pay her $25 per hour. In my mind, anything less seemed, not enough. I was asking her to clean up after me, wash floors and tackle the mess of bathrooms.
Karen wasn’t yet 21 when she gave birth to her daughter, Millie. Neither she nor her boyfriend, the father, wanted to get married. In fact, I got the impression Karen was close to breaking things off when she found out she was pregnant. He was a decent enough guy, she told me, but they really didn’t click enough to see a future together.
Shortly after Millie was born, Karen applied for an apartment through the city’s Subsidized Housing Program, which bases rent on income. She wasn’t making much money and couldn’t afford a place on her own. Despite having a high school education, she couldn’t find a decent paying full time job. So, she ended up working retail or at fast food places, none of which provided full-time hours, much less a living wage. And, to boot, none of the jobs she found offered benefits.
Please don’t slide over the obvious here. Let’s remind ourselves that businesses do this on purpose and with purpose. The structure their workforce to avoid providing benefits to their employees. One of these employees is Karen. She is smart enough to know what was really going on. She told me once, “I am just a commodity.”
Five words that offer a simple yet brilliant analysis of how the power of wealth and the addiction to wanting more has stripped away workers’ humanity. I wanted to tell her I was going to quote her in a story or a blog posting, but I checked myself.Up until six months or so ago, Karen shared a small suite with her best friend. It was a one-bedroom and her friend, who herself was struggling to get by, only had a single bed, which meant that Karen slept on the couch. Millie’s crib, which Karen bought at Goodwill, was set up in the corner of the living room.
Every so often, Karen would check where she was on the Subsidized Housing wait list. Recently she looked again. There were tears in her eyes as she told me the wait was three years. Given the work I do, I knew there was a long wait for city housing, but I didn’t realize how bad it really was. Nearly two years after applying, the wait would be at least three years longer. I must admit I had a hard time believing the wait could be so long. I wondered to myself if somehow, she had gotten lost in the shuffle.
One day, her roommate told her she was moving back in with her parents. I am sure that’s another story that should be told, but my focus here is on Karen. At the time, Karen was working retail (and still is) for $11.25 per hour but was lucky if she got 25 hours a week at the store. That’s just over $1,200 per month before taxes if she gets the full 25 hours. Who can have a decent life making such a wage?
She had started out at the minimum wage, but her boss told her she was so good at her job, she deserved a raise. Karen asked if she could have more hours instead but was informed they only offered part-time work. That’s why she does cleaning on the side.
Karen is fortunate that Millie’s father is actively involved with his daughter. When Karen explained she had to go live with her mother a few kilometres out of town, he agreed to take care of his daughter during the week. He had married by then and he and his wife could ensure Millie was cared for during the day.
Karen doesn’t have a car and public transportation to her job in Edmonton takes more than an hour each way. Sometimes friends drive her to my house so she can clean it. Her mother tries to be helpful and sometimes lends Karen her car or drives her into town, but there are limits to just how often she can provide such assistance.
For whatever reason (I didn’t want to pry), Karen did not feel good about her daughter living with her at her grandma’s. It was hard for her to ask her ex-boyfriend if he could take care of Millie during the week. She strikes me as a good, loving mother and I could tell she was distressed to go from being a full-time mom to a weekend parent.
Karen is a prime example of what it means to be a hard-working single mother living poor. Low wages, less than full-time work, no benefits, and an unbearable wait for affordable housing are the burdens she bears on a daily basis. She doesn’t make enough money to save anything. She pays some rent to her mother and contributes for gas and food, and she spends most of the rest on clothing and toys for her daughter.
Every so often she slips a few dollars to her ex-boyfriend. He tells her she doesn’t have to do that, but she insists. I understand that. I imagine you do, too.
The last time she was over she talked about her interest in doing safety work in the oil patch, but couldn’t afford going to school for her certificate. I mentioned school loans or grants as a possibility, but she shrugged me off. How would I live? Where would I live? How could I take care of Millie while I did that? Those were among her questions.
I really didn’t have any answers for her.
Karen is one number in the millions of numbers folks like me love to look at. We search for trends and progress. We look for signs of change that the data points to, but Karen is not a number. She is a woman among millions of Canadians living poor. She is a real person with a story that explains so much about what numbers cannot reveal.
If a hint of associating laziness with poverty ever entered your mind, give your head a shake. Not only does Karen plug away at her life one day at a time, she does so with bright eyes and a beautiful smile. Her life is harder than mine. Her jobs are harder than mine. I wonder if I were her would I persist as she does or would I just surrender? Just accept a future of struggle and disappointment?
Karen doesn’t want much. She wants a full-time job with an employer whose concern for the bottom line is balanced with the desire to provide a good, caring place to work and one that pays a decent wage, with benefits.
When did that common desire become a liability to our economy?
I am writing this the day after she was over. My house is pristine. The kitchen counters shine, the floors are washed, and tonight I will sleep on clean sheets. Even my towels are folded and put away, something I never asked her to do.
Of course, I don’t know Karen’s whole story. All I know is what she shared with me over coffee. I like her. I like talking to her. But she knows she is here to do a job and she never dallies very long. She finishes her coffee and then gets to work, just like most of us do every day to earn a living.
Except I am making a good one. And she isn’t.
I could recite all the reasons why my work is worth more money than the work she does. Those of us who make a good living tend to be well-versed at explaining why that makes sense, why “our” jobs deserve more financial rewards than “theirs” do.
There is something wrong with how things work. It’s like we are playing a game against one another whose rules are determined by a select few with wealth and power. We craft fairy tales about how lower taxes for the rich will benefit the Karen’s of the world. It’s the fairy tale we have been telling ourselves for years.
By the way, as she gathered up the tools of her trade, I asked if was getting more customers.
“It’s hard, she said, given where I live and the problem I have getting places. The ones I have found are okay. I took your advice and asked for what I believe I am worth but none of them agreed.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
She shrugged, “That’s just how things are,” she said. “I am used to it by now.”
I wanted to say something, but I had nothing. All the years spent doing community change work offered me no words.
I looked at her and smiled. “Karen, I appreciate you.”
Karen smiled at me. “That made my day.”
Just before she shut the back door behind her, we both yelled thanks and off she went.
Now it’s hours later and my mess has already begun to re-emerge. The kitchen table now holds a stack of reports, an empty can of mango club soda, and a laundry basket overflowing with dirty clothes. And there are wrappers strewn around my keyboard. (I have a thing for those green striped mints restaurants used to give away.)
I have a whole week to go until Karen returns. By then my clutter will be dappled across my home like weeds.
Next week will be busy. I have to travel east and work with others who are trying to change the world. Meanwhile, Karen’s life will unfold as it is prone to do and she will get through another day of living on her own, unaffected by everything we are doing to turn her story into a song of celebration.